This week’s mailbag features your questions on why Avery Bradley’s defensive metrics fail to impress, what the fate of a Colin Kaepernick in the NBA might be, an scrum-like offensive proposal and more.
“If Colin Kaepernick was a basketball player and was maybe a top 20-25 player at his position, would he be on an NBA roster?” — Joseph Brown
I think the answer is probably yes, though with an important caveat. Some part of the Kaepernick situation is the unique nature of the quarterback position, where there’s no rotation whatsoever, meaning a brighter line between starter and backup than exists in basketball. If we instead assume Kaepernick is really more like the 35th-best quarterback — an elite backup — he might never play a down, but the equivalent NBA player would still average 25-30 minutes per game even coming off the bench.
Certainly, the NBA has staked out a position far to the left of the NFL on social-justice issues, and the league’s younger, more progressive owners and fans would work to the benefit of a hypothetical Kaepernick equivalent. Yet a cynic might note that the national anthem is the one place where the league has generally been quite conservative.
The NBA’s anthem rule states that “players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture … during the playing of the American and/or Canadian national anthems,” which led to a suspension when Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf protested during the 1995-96 season. Abdul-Rauf believes that his anthem protest led him to be blackballed from the league (and pretty much predicted exactly what has played out with Kaepernick in an interview with The Undefeated last fall) and there the evidence is much less clear.
During 1995-96, the season he was suspended, Abdul-Rauf was inarguably a quality NBA player. His 7.0 wins above replacement (WARP) ranked 52nd in the league. But Abdul-Rauf’s play slipped after he was traded to the Sacramento Kings the following summer, and he rated worse than replacement level in 1996-97 (minus-1.0 WARP) and even worse in 1997-98 (minus-1.2 WARP in 530 minutes). About one in four players so ineffective in 500-plus minutes is out of the NBA the following season, and I would have expected the number to be higher than that.
Something similar is true of Craig Hodges, another player who believes he was blackballed from the NBA for his outspoken political beliefs. (Hodges even filed a lawsuit against the league in federal court.) While Hodges rated near replacement level in WARP in his final NBA season (1991-92) because of his high rate of 3-point attempts, his other advanced metrics were dismal and unlikely to rebound at age 32.
So while I suspect a basketball version of Kaepernick would in fact be in the league, there’s not a good enough precedent in terms of ability to make a strong comparison.
@kpelton Hey Kevin, why do you think Avery Bradley rates so poorly on D in real plus-minus? Seems like a good defender. Curious about that.
— Jared Cowley (@jaredcowley) August 9, 2017
Avery Bradley rated 1.7 points per 100 possessions worse than league average defensively in ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) last season. He has rated somewhat better in the past (minus-1.2 DRPM in 2015-16, plus-0.7 in 2014-15) but never as the kind of elite defender his reputation would suggest.
Part of the issue, certainly, is that Bradley doesn’t really contribute many steals and blocks for a top-tier wing defender. Compare his rates in the two categories last season to the perimeter players chosen All-Defensive ahead of him:
As a result, Bradley has never rated particularly well in terms of box plus-minus (BPM), which is similar to the box score previously used in RPM. His defensive rating in BPM has been a little bit worse than average, including minus-0.4 last season. But that’s better than Bradley’s defensive RPM, so box score stats alone don’t account for the discrepancy.
Bradley also hasn’t made a positive impact lately in terms of the Boston Celtics defending better with him on the court. In June, RPM co-creator Jerry Engelmann posted the results of 2016-17 RAPM — a version of adjusted plus-minus that doesn’t consider anything else but how the team did with a player on and off the court, adjusted for teammates’ opponents. Bradley rated 1.6 points worse than league average per 100 possessions there.
Was Bradley’s defensive RAPM a victim of playing most of his minutes with weak defender Isaiah Thomas? According to NBA.com/Stats, the Celtics did have a slightly better 106.6 defensive rating when Bradley played without Thomas, as compared to 107.9 when they played together. But that discrepancy paled in comparison to the same split for teammate Marcus Smart. Boston gave up only 96.2 points per 100 possessions when Smart played without Thomas, as compared to 111.6 with him. No wonder Smart did have a strong plus-0.5 defensive RPM.
Ultimately, I’m inclined to believe that while Bradley’s on-ball defense is frustrating for opponents and impressive to watch — particularly against elite opponents like Stephen Curry, who has shot just 40.2 percent against the Celtics the past two seasons as they split both years with the Golden State Warriors — it doesn’t make him as valuable as guards who can lock up opponents and contribute as help defenders.
Which would create a better on court product: a reduction of games per season, or reducing games to 40 minutes? #peltonmailbag
— D Stone Breaker (@MetalHoopsHead) August 11, 2017
Almost certainly reducing the number of games, I’d say. Shortening the length of the game would mean stars would be able to play fewer minutes, as they’d have less time to rest in between stints on the court. By contrast, more rest between games would presumably allow stars to play slightly more than they do now and make game more important individually.
“I had an idea for a basketball strategy that goes a little something like this: A player rebounds the ball. His four teammates then surround him and form a wall. Perhaps they even hold hands to form a true circle around the player with the ball. Then they head down the court, and in theory the wall of players should protect the player with the ball, and he will be able to get an uncontested shot from wherever they navigate to. It could be a 3-pointer, it could be a glorified free throw, it could be whatever. After the shot, the players forming the circle would get into rebounding mode, obviously.
“I’m not saying this is a brilliant idea, but I am wondering if it is even a decent idea, or a plausible idea. Could this work? Are there pitfalls to this plan that would render it impossible? Have I accidentally revolutionized basketball forever? Only you can decide for sure.” – Chris Morgan
I’m envisioning your idea as sort of the basketball equivalent of wedge blocking on returns in football (now outlawed for safety reasons). I think the issues here are twofold. First, by definition this formation of players is going to travel slowly to remain coordinated, and I’m not sure there’s enough bodies around the ball handler to completely prevent opponents from reaching in and trying to strip the ball. I guess the odds do favor the offense securing any loose ball, but it would still break the circle.
Second, depending on the distance and the height of the shooter, it might be possible for the defense to just station their biggest player in front of the circle to contest any shot. Again, there’s not a lot of lateral mobility here, so a high-arcing shot might be required to get the ball over a defender who knows exactly where the shot will be taken.
Still, I must say I think this has a better chance of succeeding than playing 4-on-5 on defense, so I hope some team gives it a try.